Assessing Quality Via Graduation Rates

January 27, 2012

The search continues for a single metric of quality we can use to compare institutions of higher education. Too quickly, however, we latch on to a single number for which we have data ready to hand. Graduation rates are one candidate that has achieved prominence in recent years. We know that many students who begin a college education fail to complete a degree, so — the argument goes — let’s measure quality by seeing which colleges and universities have the highest percentage of their entering students complete a degree.  The federal government’s IPEDS system requires all colleges and universities to report their graduation rates using a common methodology.

But no single metric of quality can possibly suffice, and any single metric that does not involve what students have learned will be especially deficient. At Earlham, we worked hard to improve our graduation rate, but I also joked that we could dramatically improve our graduation rate problem by conferring degrees on our students at the end of their first week at the college.  (Of course we would invite them to stay to be educated for four more years.)

This week, The Washington Post’s Dan DeVise gave over his College Inc. blog to Patricia McGuire, President of Trinity Washington University, to provide a concise critique of graduation rates as a metric of quality. She notes a longer critique done by the American Council on Education.

Here’s the most important thing you should know: graduation rates at colleges and universities are highly correlated with certain characteristics of the entering students: especially their high school grades and SAT scores, and their family incomes. Thus, more selective institutions (those that accept a tiny fraction of applicants) have higher graduation rates. Graduation rates aren’t a good single metric (there aren’t any) but if you are going to use them, what you want to know is whether a college or university performs better than the graduation rate you would predict knowing the  characteristics of the entering students.

We should especially value colleges and universities that enroll significant numbers or percentages of students who have a lower propensity to graduate given their family background, high school grades and SAT scorers, but nevertheless educate and graduate these students. Simply praising colleges with very high graduation rates (or castigating those with low ones) makes no sense.

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About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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